Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Louisville Cardinals: 2015 Music City Bowl Champions


NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Louisville football came here to Nissan Stadium, three hours or so from home, and put in a solid performance to finish the 2015 season, running past Texas A&M 27-21 in the Music City Bowl on Wednesday night.

The win pushes Louisville (8-5) into a critical offseason in which a young team hopes to start the process of growing into a potential ACC title contender in the coming seasons. The Cards will spend the next few weeks waiting on the decisions of four key juniors who are trying to figure out if they want to return to school for one more season or make an NFL roster.

In the meantime, U of L has its third bowl win in four seasons, a budding star in freshman quarterback Lamar Jackson and a young core of talent around him.

Offensive player of the game: It has to be Jackson, who set a freshman record for total offense in a single game (453 yards) and broke the school's career rushing record for quarterbacks in the process. The speedy, shifty signal caller did a little bit of everything in Louisville's win, carving his way into the end zone in the first quarter with a 6-yard run, then busting through Texas A&M's defense 10 minutes later for a 61-yard touchdown sprint. The first quarter hadn't even ended when Jackson ran past the 100-yard mark. He finished with 226 rushing yards and two touchdowns.

The biggest knock on Jackson is that he is not a polished passer. That is still the case, and U of L's offensive coaches will spend a lot of the offseason working with him on his pocket presence, deep balls and throwing touch, but he was sharp throwing the ball on Wednesday. His numbers aren't eye-popping - 12 of 26 for 227 yards and two touchdowns - but he was effective enough to keep Texas A&M's defense at bay while also limiting turnovers and throwing the ball away when he was in trouble. It was an important step into the offseason for Jackson.

Defensive player of the game: Call it a tie between DeVonte Fields and Josh Harvey-Clemons, who both had major impacts on the game. Fields had his best game of the season, sacking Texas A&M quarterback Jake Hubenak three times. He tormented Texas A&M left tackle Avery Gennesy, who at one point in the first half picked up back-to-back false starts.

Harvey-Clemons, a much-maligned figure on U of L's defense in the second half of the season, came up big, too. The hulking safety had a free shot at Hubenak on a safety blitz in the third quarter and slapped the ball out of the quarterback's hands for a strip-sack, a fumble that James Hearns recovered. Later in the same quarter, he snatched a key interception that led to Louisville's fourth touchdown of the game and gave the Cards a two-score lead.

Where the game turned: Harvey-Clemons, after checking back on Hubenak mid-play, adjusted himself to make a leaping, fingertips interception at the Louisville 27-yard line. It came at a time when Louisville was clinging to a six-point lead and needed some momentum, and the Georgia transfer provided it. U of L went 73 yards in seven plays after the pick, capping the drive with a 17-yard touchdown pass from Jackson to Keith Towbridge, who was wide open in the end zone.

Key stats: This one comes with the obvious caveat that Texas A&M's two primary quarterbacks transferred, which left Hubenak, the third-stringer, at the helm. That said, A&M (8-5) came into the game with an impressive 43.2 percent conversion rate on third downs, but the Aggies struggled on Wednesday, hitting on just 6-of-18 tries.

What went right: The pass rush was really effective for Louisville, especially early on. DeVonte Fields was disruptive as ever, and Sheldon Rankins and James Hearns had solid games, too, until Hearns's late-game hands-to-the-face penalty that kept alive Texas A&M's last-gasp drive. Beyond that, the offensive line did a solid job for Jackson, who did a lot of work with his own legs, but he did have running lanes and space to operate.

What went wrong: The game got off to a rather surprising start, with senior linebacker James Burgess, one of the key cogs in Louisville's defense, getting ejected from the game after a targeting penalty on the first play. It was a disappointing end to what has been a very productive career for Burgess. Later in the first quarter, one of Louisville's top pass rushers, Trevon Young, was taken to the hospital with a hip injury after he was carted off the field. Those two incidents, and the brief back injury for cornerback Shaq Wiggins, put a damper on Louisville's otherwise impressive first quarter.
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